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Opinion: The nightmare of dining out with allergies in Ireland might soon end

When are the restaurants going to get in line for December 2014 Food Allergen legislation?

Laura Kenny

FROM DECEMBER 2014 restaurants will be required to show whether 14 main food allergens (gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seeds, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, lupin and molluscs) are contained in any food they are serving. This is great news for the allergy community. Many of these food allergens including milk, shellfish and peanuts could cause a life threatening anaphylactic shock in some people, this is why it is so crucial for restaurants to be aware of what they are serving. I think if people were aware how very serious it could be, there would be a different reaction when you ask for something without a specific allergen.

Dining out can be difficult for many people with food allergies and intolerances. Eating out is such a huge part of our culture – weddings, funerals, birthday parties, festivals, holidays all have one thing in common – food. Sometimes when you explain a food allergy, you get a sense that people think you are being fussy or that your children are being fussy – but people with food allergies, or who look after children with food allergies, just want a chance to eat out safely like everyone else. We’re not looking for separate menus or special treatment, just for the restaurant staff to be knowledgeable about what is in the food they are serving so that we can make an informed decision.

Staff need to understand allergies

My children are cow’s milk protein intolerant so they cannot have anything with milk or milk products in it. We are extremely lucky my children’s reactions are mild but if they were very serious I would worry more about eating out. I’m hoping the new December 2014 laws will mean that the restaurant experience for those with allergies is about to improve dramatically.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where the staff seemed very well trained on allergens. I am hoping it is a sign of things to come. The waiter immediately checked with the chef once we asked if the chicken dish we wished to order contained dairy. He came back to say that the chicken had been marinaded in something containing milk, so we were able to order something different. It was refreshing to see my child’s allergy taken seriously.

Unfortunately, my heart sank when I ate out again somewhere different a few weeks later.

We ate out in a busy long established Italian restaurant with the kids and another family recently. When I scanned the kids’ menu, I narrowed it down to three possibilities that shouldn’t contain milk products. I asked the waitress what could the children have that is dairy free. She looked at me blankly. Then she told me they could make gluten-free pasta. I could see I would need to explain what dairy-free meant. I told her they couldn’t have anything with cheese, milk, butter or cream. She then repeated that they could have gluten free pasta. She said the spaghetti bolognese or pasta with tomato sauce would be fine but she didn’t really sound confident that she even knew what we were asking.

I then proceeded to ask about dessert because the children’s menu was an all-in-one price including dessert. The options on the menu were chocolate brownie and ice-cream or an ice-cream float. There it was again, that blank stare. We agreed that they would have fruit, but again I wasn’t inspired by her confidence and I was expecting her to forget and put cream or ice-cream with the fruit by accident.

If we decide to bring the kids with us to a restaurant, it’s hard enough getting them to stay quiet, eat with knives and forks and to stop running around among the servers with hot food. Quite apart from that I usually have to explain again why they cannot have particular things. This can result in tears or a tantrum. The last thing a hassled parent wants is to have to explain about their kids allergies to the waiting staff when they clearly have no idea what you are talking about and aren’t very accommodating.

In the meantime my five-year-old read the adults’ dessert menu which was on the back of his menu and decided he wanted strawberry parfait. I knew this would have milk in it but I decided to try another waiter when he was over and asked if any of the desserts were dairy-free. He replied ‘gluten free?’ And so the cycle started again where we educated him in what ‘dairy’ meant. 

Awkward 

I am delighted that there were gluten-free options on the menu and the staff knew about them but they didn’t seem to really understand why someone might want something gluten-free. Their level of training definitely needs to improve. In general, gluten-free foodstuffs and gluten-free menu options are becoming very widespread which is absolutely super, but restaurants need to up their game to be aware of other food allergens also. It is not just leaving out a small number of food allergy sufferers, if you include their families, who won’t go to the restaurant if everyone can’t eat, you can see a huge portion of the population put off eating out.

As we were eating out with friends they started apologising that their kids would be having dessert, and I felt we were making a big fuss where there shouldn’t have been one. The boys ended up with strawberries for dessert and a promise of something nice when they got home if they accepted this. The five-year-old took some persuading, but he didn’t create a scene. It was so difficult to explain to him why he couldn’t have the same as his friend. He understands that he can’t have dairy but tantrums are never far away in situations like this.

To say I was disappointed by the staff in the restaurant was a huge understatement. It is so incredibly important for restaurant staff to understand the dangers of food allergies. The reactions can vary from life-threatening to mild, but understanding is key. If you tell them you or your child is allergic to something, they should react as if it is possible that it could be life-threatening. They don’t know unless they ask you how mild or serious it might be.

My boys are intolerant to the protein in cow’s milk, my younger boy would have a sick stomach, bloating, and be unwell for a few days if he consumed milk products. My older boy would react with excema and his asthma symptoms would worsen. These are mild reactions compared to how other people can react.

I was really shocked by the lack of knowledge among waiting staff that day. I hope that restaurant owners are aware of the new laws and have plans in place to train their staff. It is so important. With five months to go to December, I really hope the restaurants will be ready. I am dreaming of a day when it will be safe to eat out and we are not trusting our child’s health to someone untrained in allergens and how serious it might be.

Laura Kenny writes at dairyfreekids.ie

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Laura Kenny

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